March 30, 2004

Small poultry producers are not immune from bird flu SIUC Country Column

by Tom Woolf

Outbreaks of bird flu elsewhere might turn out to be a break of a different kind for Illinois.

"This could be a good area for a poultry company to move into, because a big concern when it comes to disease is, 'What's your neighbor got?' and we don't have anything -- we're a clean state," said Michael P. Martin, an avian veterinarian at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a specialist in disease prevention.

While Illinois doesn't have the disease now, its niche market growers -- backyard producers serving consumers who prefer homegrown eggs and fryers -- should not get too cocky."There's no reason why the commercial poultry industry could not do well in Illinois. (Bird flu outbreaks in poultry-producing states) might be a catalyst to stimulate a little more interest."

"Smaller producers often don't have biosecurity procedures set up," Martin said. "They say, 'I've never had a problem before. Why should I worry now?'

"But that's a little like playing Russian roulette. If you have one bullet in the chamber and keep spinning it, eventually you're going to get that bullet. Smaller producers need to be aware of how the disease is transmitted and what they can do to prevent it."

Bird diseases often incubate in live bird markets, where small-scale producers hawk their wares.

"In Delaware (where a mild strain of bird flu surfaced in February, resulting in a state ban on live poultry sales), the owner of the first farm that turned up positive had recently been to a live bird market up in New York City," Martin noted.

He said the markets' practice of housing mixed ages together in one confined space made it open season on the birds for viruses and bacteria.

"Anything that the older birds have goes to the younger ones, who are more susceptible," Martin said.

In addition, live markets have few regulations.

"It's not like a state fair where there's a screening process to make sure the animals coming in are healthy," he said.

To help break the disease cycle, bird markets should clean cages and other equipment thoroughly after each use.

Producers can also take steps to protect themselves.

"Leave unsold birds at the market -- don't bring them home again, or if you have to, then quarantine them," Martin said.

Wash the crates and the truck you transported them in, then take a shower and wash your clothes.

"These are things you can do that aren't expensive -- they're just a little bit of work," Martin said.

Full-scale biosecurity measures, which can involve setting up separate areas for breeding, brooding and growing out the birds, disinfection procedures and vaccination programs, do cost money -- a problem for small-volume bird farmers.

"They're already charging more for the product because it costs them more to produce it," Martin said.

"But if you end up having a disease that gets into your population, you have lost all your birds and then you're really in financial trouble."

With human flu season on the wane, bird producers may think they're off the hook until next year. Not so, Martin said.

"Bird flu has no true seasonality," he said. "If the virus is present, it can hit any time."